The People’s War for Education

During the Second World War, Britain's soldiers insisted that they were fighting for more than a return to the status quo - and the popular educational programmes they established helped to pave the way for Labour's victory in 1945.

It was fascinating to read Olivia Humphreys’ article on ‘The Desert Parliament,’ when Second World War soldiers took matters into their own hands to argue about a better future. It would be easy to see this was an isolated example of best practice, but Humphreys mentions in passing a wider programme of adult education in the armed forces, the ABCA or Army Bureau of Current Affairs.

Although little-known now, at the time it was given great significance for two reasons; first of all, it was arguably the largest programme of adult education ever conducted in the UK, and secondly many at the time argued that it was instrumental in bringing about Labour’s landslide election victory in July 1945. For these reasons, it merits some examination.

The period leading up to the war is often characterised as the “appeasers,” led by Chamberlain, against those who wanted to stand up to the Nazis, led by Churchill. The attitude of the Left is typically ignored. But from the start there were those like Tom Wintringham, founder of the Local Defence Volunteers (later the Home Guard), who saw the war as a transformational moment in history. As early as 1940 he argued that soldiers “must be persuaded, made to understand, given the enthusiasm that will change their discipline from an acceptance of orders to an eager use of all their powers in pursuit of a common aim… that the war is their war.”

1940 was also the year that John Price, then Education Officer of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, published the book Labour in the War. It went far beyond a defensive nationalist position, setting out ideas which were extremely advanced considering how early in the war they were expressed: 

“One thing is clear, organised labour is not fighting to restore things as they were before the war. There is a widespread feeling in the country that many of the changes introduced during the war have got to stay. After the war organised labour will expect to see the country’s industry and system of government adapted for the purpose of promoting the wellbeing of the people. They will remember that this was a war for democracy and liberty against dictatorship and repression. “

As the armed forces rapidly expanded into 1941 these idea began to gather support among the more liberal members of both the political and military establishment. It was believed that low morale was a major problem, and that men and women in the forces were clear about what they were fighting against but not what they were fighting for. Many in the ruling class had flirted with the Nazis, and there was now a guilt and abhorrence that this had been the case.

It was at this time that the army, led by the Adjutant-General Sir Ronald Adam, made contact with WE Williams of the Workers Educational Association and others in order to develop a scheme which would allow members of the armed forces, especially soldiers, to debate the purpose of the war, and after much to-ing and fro-ing the ABCA was born in 1941.

The Army Bureau of Current Affairs

The ABCA was not universally popular. Ernest Bevin was able to use his power to defend it, but the political Right was solidly against the initiative. Churchill issued an order scrapping it – but it was ignored and, in the end, he forgot about it.

The views Churchill expressed, however, made clear the sentiments of many in Britain’s elite towards the ABCA. “I do not approve of this system of encouraging political discussion in the army,” he said, “the only sound principle is ‘no politics in the army’.” Field Marshal Montgomery wanted to give these sessions to the chaplains!

But the pressure to develop the scheme was maintained by people like the ‘red’ Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple. The Soviet Union’s entry into the war as an ally in June 1941 also raised the stakes, as many Communists and fellow travellers were released from their torpor created by the Nazi-Soviet pact and began to link Britain’s war aims with what they saw as the Soviet vision of society.

One problem posed by ABCA was who would deliver this education? The regular army officers, especially the senior ones, were almost entirely right-wing, and devoted to hunting, polo and other upper-class pursuits. They had little desire or ability to engage in discussion with the other ranks.

Generally, they passed on their orders to a new breed of junior officer, many of whom had come from left-wing backgrounds, “red-brick” universities, the Workers Educational Association, Labour College Movement and the trade unions. They had the skills and the desire to engage with the soldiers, and often leapt at the chance.

By 1942, two factors expanded and focused the scheme. One was the Beveridge Report, which had consolidated public opinion in favour of developing a welfare state. The other was British Way and Purpose, a collection of pamphlets exploring post-war reconstruction and issues such as citizenship, social policy, employment, family, rights and the international order. Hardly any working-class people had been exposed to such matters before joining the army, and many were transformed by these discussions. 

The Beveridge Report wasn’t universally popular amongst soldiers. The writer Anthony Burgess, who lectured in the scheme, recorded in his autobiography the response from one soldier: “the only beveridge we want is beer and tea that isn’t NAAFI gnat-piss.” But Beveridge’s condemnation of “wants” like poverty and poor housing became the basis of many 1945 Labour government policies – which were growing in popularity among the ranks long before the war ended.

The ABCA and Labour’s Victory

In July 1945 Labour won 393 seats to the Tories’ paltry 189. Some argued that the Left had taken advantage of the war to promote its ideas. Attention soon turned to the ABCA. The Daily Telegraph famously said that the one battle honour of the Army Education Corps had been the Labour victory, and then-Labour MP Woodrow Wyatt would later remark that “whoever had dreamed up ABCA was in part responsible for Labour’s landslide in 1945.”

But how true was this assertion? Out of 25 million voters in 1945, only 1.7 million were in the forces, and many commentators and historians have pointed out that the leftward trend during the “people’s war” affected all parts of society. The destructiveness of the war, the increased role of the state, the importance of the Soviet Union as an ally, Beveridge and the memories of the 1930s all coalesced into a progressive mood which swept Labour into power.

The ABCA helped to focus this trend, and to give confidence to hundreds of thousands of working-class men and women who went back to their families and put the arguments for progressive change. In that sense it was both a reflection of and a contributor to that change in the nation’s mood.

Today’s Labour Party has set out a plan for a revival of adult education. One of the consequences of Thatcherism, along with the decline of unions and properly regulated employment, has been the growing isolation of the individual – and some of Labour’s most vocal opponents are those working-class people who have been forced into the isolation of self-employment, whether bogus or not.

Sometimes, people in these positions see their desperate situation as threatened by Labour’s plan to increase the role of the state and to introduce better employment rights. Undoubtedly, working each day in this vulnerable situation has the capacity to make people feel isolated and negative. 

The ABCA used educational methods to bring people together in a collective experience, and substituted isolation with a collective growth of confidence and optimism. If adult education can be revived, this type of experience might be the result, helping our society of today to begin to go forward into better times.